Good technology, bad attitude

August 6, 1999

William Saunderson-Meyer reports on the country's world competitiveness rankings

There are regular bouts of national breast-beating by South Africans when surveys such as the latest World Competitiveness Yearbook - which ranks the country at 42 out of 47 overall in terms of national competitiveness across a comprehensive range of criteria - publish their gloomy results.

Perhaps it is the result of a colonial inferiority complex, for the results are not as grim as they might appear at first glance.

First, as there are more than 170 countries in the world, mere inclusion in the statistics places South Africa within the first 25th percentile of the world.

Second, the nature of the country's racial history is such that the averaging effect of surveys inevitably disguises real pockets of excellence and achievement.

Of course, this is not to say that there is no bad news. In research and development terms, South Africa as a location is ranked 45 in the 1999 yearbook. Some major negatives are the failure of the education system to meet the needs of a competitive economy (ranking 46), an adult illiteracy rate of 18.2 per cent of the population (45), the failure of science and technology to interest the youth (47), and the high brain drain (46).

The country is ranked at 30 for both total R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP and for business R&D expenditure in US dollars per capita, ahead of China, Malaysia and Brazil. It is much the same regarding the financial resources available for technological development (32).

In the area of technology transfer between companies and universities, South Africa at 25 surprisingly outranks Japan (26) and France ().

Regarding legal constraints on the development of technology, South Africa (16) is placed just behind the United States (15) and ahead of Japan (18), France (23), the United Kingdom (24) and Germany (29).

In terms of the relationship between basic research and long-term economic and technological development, South Africa (25) is placed ahead of countries such as Hungary (34), Turkey (35), Greece (36), Portugal (37), Italy (38), Mexico (39) and Russia (45).

South Africa (16) does well on the average annual number of patents granted to residents, better than Canada (19), Ireland (21), all of the Scandinavian countries (except for Sweden at 10), as well as Malaysia (39) and Russia (43).

These creditable performances have to be measured against the general decline of South Africa in the weighted overall science and technology index, from 31 in 1995 to 44 in 1999.

It is particularly poor in terms of R&D personnel (46) and the scientific environment (45). The poor scientific environment rating is puzzling when it is considered that the country is rated 34 for its technological infrastructure (and for basic infrastructure).

Also, if one is to take such indices as gospel, one must believe that South Africa's greatest liability is its people - on the weighted people index it came last.

It did particularly poorly on population characteristics (47), labour force characteristics (45), unemployment (47), educational structures (46), quality of life (42), and attitudes and values (47).

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